Punjabi Language Learnings

Keerat Kaur's Panjabi Garden reviewed
By Asa Willoughby
Panjabi Garden. Image by Keerat Kaur.

Panjabi Garden
By Keerat Kaur
Self-Published, 2022

Image credit: Keerat Kaur.

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Keerat Kaur is a Canadian-born artist and architect with Sikh-Punjabi roots. The book presents Kaur’s art and is an exploration of her dedication to her mother tongue, Punjabi. The book was part of an eponymous exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery, in Surrey, British Columbia from January 21 to March 26, 2023. The exhibition featured Kaur’s artwork, poetry, and music. The book was launched on January 27, 2023, as a part of the exhibition. According to the Surrey Art Gallery site, the author uses the term “Panjabi” instead of “Punjabi” as an attempt to “decolonize the word itself”.

In this review, I will explore how and why the premise of Panjabi Garden fails to reach an audience of learners. Further, I will look at the issue of language standardisation. This is a major stumbling block for Punjabi in general and is rooted in colonial assumptions. Finally, I will focus on language pedagogy. What does it mean to understand how to teach a language? Does being a native speaker give you the skills to teach the language?

Panjabi Garden is a beautiful book of Kaur’s art and clearly a labour of love. It centres her artistic voice and explores “nature-themed magic”, as stated on the artist’s website, along with her focus on teaching the Punjabi language.

Panjabi Garden joins a number of books that seek to be resources for learning the language. We can look to J. S. Nagra’s Panjabi Made Easy series, or Complete Punjabi written by Surjit Singh Kalra and Navtej Kaur Purewal. In fact, during his life, Surjit Singh Kalra published numerous books on learning Punjabi, and J. S. Nagra continues to do so now. The Sikh Missionary Society (UK) has also published its own guide to the Gurmukhi script. Kaur has rightly noticed that few books deal with Punjabi grammar, but a few is not none. Complete Punjabi features grammar explanations in every chapter within the context of a lesson. Mangat Rai Bhardwaj has also published Panjabi: A comprehensive grammar which is a well-researched guide for trained linguists. Bhardwaj also uses the spelling “Panjabi” in the titles of his books, since at least 1995.

When the Punjabi diaspora established itself in the West, there was a recognized need to teach children of Punjabi heritage their mother tongue. It is in this context that J. S. Nagra sought to help with his many books dedicated to the first generation of Punjabis born in English-speaking countries. Between the 1960s and 1980s the children of Punjabi immigrants often grew up speaking Punjabi because their parents still spoke it as their primary language. This meant that the need was for resources to teach the script alone. The children spoke Punjabi at home so there was no need to teach them to speak, only to read and write. With the second and third generations, however, this has changed. Many Punjabis are born to parents whose mother tongue is not Punjabi and therefore they are never taught the language. Different diasporic communities have also faced varying degrees of pressure to assimilate, which has often led to a lack of language maintenance. Finally, there are more and more non-Punjabis either embracing the Sikh faith or marrying into Punjabi-speaking families, who hope to learn the language to better communicate with friends and family. Over time the relationship between learning and teaching Punjabi in the diaspora has drastically changed due to migration and diasporic establishment patterns.

Panjabi Garden utilises a story to teach grammar but the grammar in the story is not explained in the book. The grammar which is utilized is fairly complex for learners of the language to grasp. Some examples are: (1) the usage of infinitive verbs in the oblique case (ਕਰਨ ਦਾ), (2) complex combinations of the same verb in the same sentence that is native only to a fluent speaker (ਹੋਣਾ ਹੁੰਦਾ ਹੈ) and, at times, (3) the usage of a gerund (also called the present paarticiple) (ਬੈਠੀ ਹੈ). The grammar in these examples is not explained, in part because the book does not seek to be a complete textbook. On her website, Kaur writes: “Panjabi Garden is meant to be a thorough introduction to the Gurmukhi script and Panjabi language, rather than an all-encompassing overview of linguistics. The beauty of this book is that anyone (emphasis in original text) can pick it up and find something that speaks to their heart.” This book, like others before, appears to be written for those who already speak and understand the Punjabi language, not for beginners trying to learn it.

An important issue to note is the alienation which can occur when teaching resources are misaligned with the expectations of the learner. This alienation can turn people away from engaging with the language. I have seen this trend again and again among my students. What happens is a reenforcing of deeply set complexes that Punjabis, who are not proficient in the language, already feel. The more diasporic Punjabis feel rejected for not being taught the language as children, the more they seek out resources to learn. When they feel the same rejection in the resources, they again feel inadequate. In my experience, the learners then give up and the next generation loses the language altogether.

The second issue is that of standardisation. Indic languages were typically standardised by the British in language seminaries during the colonial period. When the British arrived in India, they found no clear standardisation of defined languages in North India and struggled to learn the local languages. Without being able to learn them, they could not control the population and succeed in their colonising mission. Punjabi was therefore standardised, along with Hindi, Urdu, and other languages. The first major grammars of South Asian languages were produced by British colonial linguists, whose aim was to “purify” the languages. This created divides between communities1For a more detailed historical discussion see: Mandair, Arvind-Pal Singh. Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.. It is also important to note that historically Gurmukhi is one of the most recent scripts for the Punjabi language. Gurmukhi was heavily promoted by the second Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Angad Dev Ji, but prior to this Shahmukhi had been the most commonly used script for the language.

It is key to understand that standardisation has a use. Punjabis living in the West are well acquainted with the language learning processes of European languages that they are taught in school. Punjabi being able to fit into this same model of standardisation means that it is far easier to learn and gain fluency in. The lack of standardisation in most Punjabi learning literature is a hindrance to the future of the language. In the case of Panjabi Garden, there are words that are spelled differently at different points in the book (ਖ਼ਜ਼ਾਨਾ is also written ਖਜ਼ਾਨਾ) and although these differences are minor to a native speaker, they stick out to learners. Learners of any subject are dissuaded when they are unable to comprehend the learning material. In this case, not understanding why a word is written one way and then another is hugely disorientating. Another potentially confusing aspect is the use of the letter ਲ਼ – this letter has always been pronounced in spoken Punjabi but is a newer addition to the written language and not yet standardised. Kaur perhaps overuses this letter in the book, for words in which it is not pronounced in standard Punjabi. It can be confusing to learners of the language who are unable to connect what they are learning in Panjabi Garden with other Punjabi learning resources they may come across.

On the topic of standardisation, another major issue is transliteration. No one single form of transliteration exists for Punjabi. Scores of trained Punjabi linguists have created transliteration systems that have been used in a number of publications, and many more exist in everyday usage. In my view, a transliteration system created without training in linguistics is problematic. It leaves this book out of serious conversations about Punjabi language pedagogy.

A major problem facing Punjabi is the failure of Punjabi resources to engage with advances in language pedagogy, which is an academic discipline in its own right. Many linguists and language educators are carrying out research into language acquisition. Currently, the work of Gianfranco Conti is particularly influential. His PhD research into the human memory is beginning to revolutionise language teaching in high schools. Punjabi is always left out of the revolution because few Punjabi teachers engage with this world of research. In my view, the grammar sections in Panjabi Garden appear to be out of touch with current scholarship in language pedagogy. The grammar source cited in Panjabi Garden is over fifty years old. In my view, Panjabi Garden would have gained from engagement with current research in how to teach the Punjabi language especially since the author writes on her website that “this book is meant to hold a beginner's hand through the language, while providing proficient speakers with a novel experience of visual and literary substance.” Teaching Punjabi takes more than just being a native speaker of the language.

Kaur is a wonderful community-based artist with a strong love of the language. She has raised interest for those who wish to learn Punjabi in the diaspora. Using her platform as a popular artist in her community has been a great way of inviting discussion around the Punjabi language. I find it particularly uplifting to think of Panjabi Garden as a coffee table art book in many diasporic Punjabi households. Kaur’s creative efforts should be applauded despite the reservations raised in this review.


  1. For a more detailed historical discussion see: Mandair, Arvind-Pal Singh. Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Asa Willoughby
Asa Willoughby is a teacher, scholar and consultant.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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